Think Piece

Practical Past, Runaway Future

by guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

In his latest book and recent articles, Hayden White puts the almost-forgotten notion of the “practical past” back on the scholarly agenda, and right at the center of debates within the field of philosophy of history. By reviving the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s distinction between the “historical past” and the “practical past,” White argues that embracing the latter will help to restore the public reputation of history.white the practical past cover

By “history,” White means more than just historical writing and the academic discipline of history. He characterizes the “practical past” several times as a general societal attitude, in contrast to the discipline’s attachment to the historical past. However, I would like to read White as someone who is attentive to the necessary intertwining of “history” understood as a general sense of the course of events and as academic historical writing. In such a reading, a call for the embrace of the practical past would serve the same purpose as the call of The History Manifesto: to bring historical studies into contact with the most pressing concerns of our times, and to do so in a way that would enable historians and the discipline to be instrumental in shaping future action. Whereas The History Manifesto wishes to accomplish the task by turning to long-term thinking, in The Practical Past White argues that we should tell stories in which the past is living in the present, because these stories can serve as practical guides to future action.

In White’s view, the problem remains that the discipline of history is engaged instead in what Oakeshott called the historical past: “a dead past” that is “for itself alone.” Although I sharply disagree with White on this, I have to concede that his argument does not hinge upon such agreement. His point is that the desired public relevance of history lies in its capacity to tell practical stories in which the past is still with us, and by which we might go forward.

White’s turn to the practical past has already attracted a great deal of feedback. Some of this is positive, like that from White’s biographer, Herman Paul, who thinks that the notion of practical past is perfectly consistent with White’s overall humanism and an ideal of history that facilitates social action. More critical voices, like Chris Lorenz, note that the entire distinction between historical and practical past is based on a positivistic tradition that White thereby upholds. More is to come when the International Network for Theory of History devotes its second conference to the issue of the practical past. It will be held next year in Brazil under the title “The Practical Past: on the advantages and disadvantages of history for life.”

Given this wide impact, it is important to ask the question whether the notion of the practical past (and, for that matter, The History Manifesto) is a feasible and appropriate link between historical studies and our wider societal, cultural and political concerns. The answer I would like to give to this question is, unfortunately, anything but affirmative. The practical past is more of the problem than the solution: the notion of history that underlies White’s suggestion is precisely what has lost its relevance to recent societal concerns. In an article forthcoming in the European Review of History, I offer a detailed argument supporting this claim, but within the confines of a blog post I will focus on the essentials.

In the most general terms, the practical past fails to engage with the very concerns to which it wishes to connect. The feasibility of a conceptual framework for bridging past, present and future hinges on whether it can make sense of the future prospects we presently have. But the future prospects we presently have can best be called unprecedented changes: those entailed in the concept of the Anthropocene, in the prospect of a “technological singularity” and “intelligence explosion,” in nanotechnology, or in the practice of bioengineering and human enhancement.

Many of these may strike you as science fiction, but what matters is not whether we will actually witness, say, a technological singularity, when machines of our creation begin to make even more intelligent machines and thus suddenly outperform us. What matters is that this is the prospect of the future we have—not only at the cinema, but also at laboratories and university departments. Our notion of history—in the sense that White uses it, as both the course of events and as historical writing—does not depend solely on our retrospective stance. It derives from the way we configure the relationship between the past, the present and the future. If our future prospects qualitatively change, our notion of history, including history understood as historical writing, has to change with it if we wish it to survive.

Thus, the problem with White’s practical past (and with The History Manifesto) is that it is based on a notion of history that cannot make sense of our future prospect of unprecedented changes. For the practical past, based on a deep temporal continuity and on the continuity of human experience, has to bow down before a change that does not unfold or evolve from a past state of affairs (and this, I believe is precisely what Dipesh Chakrabarty finds so disturbingly challenging in the notion of the Anthropocene). The practical past is able to conceptualize only that sort of change and notion of history which White ponders in his book: the change during which a substance retains its identity, and a history in which a subject retains its identity while undergoing changes in appearance. What it cannot conceptualize is a change in which what was previously regarded as a subject that retains its self-identity through all changes (that is, humanity, on the largest scale) disappears or gets replaced by another subject that comes to existence without unfolding from the past. What the practical past can conceptualize is, for instance, the process of nation building; what it cannot conceptualize is unprecedented change.

In order to answer the question of how historical studies could regain its instrumentality in shaping our lives, we should first have an answer to the question of what sort of concerns we have and what sort of future life we envision. Before we could demand a role for history in shaping future action and wider societal concerns, we should consider what our societal concerns demand from our notion of history.

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology. His research revolves around the interrelated efforts to devise a quasi-substantive philosophy of history to account for history understood as the course of events, and to frame a critical philosophy of history that reconciles the linguistic and non-linguistic dimensions of history understood as historical writing.

Think Piece

History contra global

by John Raimo

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that everyone feels strongly about global history. It may even prove more contentious so far as intellectual history goes. Yet what goes comparatively little discussed would be how today’s global history has redefined, institutionalized, and finally nationalized itself. This makes for a fascinating intellectual terrain as all three processes blur into one another, a line of criticism growing among global history’s critics (appropriately enough scattered across the world). Put another way, just how global is global history? The question admits more concrete reflections than perhaps its advocates or skeptics imagine.

Global history begins as a project of definitions. That is, the field defines ‘the global’ rather than the nation as its subject. What this might prove remains contestable, however. ‘Global’ more largely entails the phenomenon of transnational networks (perhaps the subject of inordinate focus), global as an actor’s or a native category—one which may be sharply contested as a colonial product—or a framework of historiographical comparison, as Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori have eloquently pointed out (in part echoing such anthropologists as Marcel Detienne). This is very much a revisionary project as the nation falls away as a primary unit of analysis.


Yet in the Anglophone context, ‘global’ history only achieved its currency against ‘world,’ ‘transnational,’ and ‘international’ history fairly recently. History has always been global, of course, from classical encounters of foreign civilizations through ecclesiastical, philosophical, universal, comparative, and finally ‘deep’ history. The historiographical background in this instance seems much more pointed, however. Historians such as Charles S. Maier, Michael Geyer, and Charles Bright defined their work as ‘global’ in the 1970s and 1980s. Later decades saw a great moment of ‘regional studies’ as such works as Larry Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe and Tony Judt’s Postwar among others appeared.


A relationship exists between ‘regional studies,’ ‘area studies,’ and global history. This is partially a Cold War story and partly an institutional story. Federal funding disappeared for certain departments and ‘critical languages’ became harder to study. Moreover, Cold War frames of reference later fell away, ‘national’ histories came under increasing scrutiny, and academic hiring in America and Britain eventually became tighter. (We can perhaps also guess that the complaint began to sound regarding ‘Balkanization’ of separately-funded research centers at wealthier institutions.) Thus a generation of scholars trained in ‘national’ histories began writing on a larger scale just as the institutional training they received and traditional career tracks began to disappear. Here we begin to return to the question of what global history entails in point of concrete practice today.

‘Global’ slowly came to replace global. How we define it today cuts to the heart of several problems. What is the actual, concrete subject of global history as opposed to, say, transnational history or the study of transferts culturels? What methodologically distinguishes an imperial history of New Zealand, Egypt, and Ireland from a study of the Hapsburg monarchy or a Mexican-American study, for instance? More pointedly, why might we feel that farther-flung connections somehow prove inherently more interesting than relations between contiguous states, even ones with vastly different languages, cultures, and histories? And finally, what sorts of subjects and training have become lost as many young scholars rush to write global history?

Criticism is converging around such questions. Cutting away the nation, region, and area leads to a theoretically finite range of properly ‘global’ topics: supranational organizations, NGOs, empires, commercial and economic networks, technology, and the environment. In terms of intellectual history, the movement of ideas (political and otherwise), educational models, religious vocabulary, and cosmopolitan culture often enough prove indisputably global in nature. It need not be said that no single one of these subjects has been exhausted, yet not every NGO was created equally interesting. As Philippe Minard among others has pointed out on in this register, global history easily enough tips into superficial histories of globalization as such.

Similarly, a great deal can be lost wherever the ‘global’ overrides ‘national’ expertise, local knowledge, and the significant linguistic competencies necessary for any historical depth. Certain places figuratively fall off the map if they cannot be seen as ‘global’ at any given moment. The same goes for languages. Religious and philosophical texts go unread insofar as they remain untranslated, for instance, lacking an imperial power buttressed behind them. Historians such as Sebastian Conrad and Andreas Eckert have warned how global history can also devolve into a fetish for simple distance, the simple multiplication of national case studies (barely disguised under the rubric of the ‘state’), highly-restricted periodizations, and finally inadvertent reprises of colonial lines of historical thinking.

Negotiating these criticisms also entails institutional and national self-reflection, not least in the training afforded to graduate students. The fostering of a deeper sort of global history would include fluency in different languages (if not some philological training as well), a familiarity with non-Anglophone scholarship as well as with primary materials, a great deal of time and funds devoted to research in scattered archives, reformed examination structures, revised job descriptions, different grant guidelines and new fellowships, and finally the broadening of academic networks and exchanges between countries. In a word, global history cannot be wholly Anglophone.

All this is clearly impossible on the collective and institutional level, especially in light of the sheer resources demanded—something global history’s advocates often conveniently forget. So far as ambition, personal research, and historiography go, however, the criticisms of global history might still prove invaluable. And here global history’s critics often overlook the relative youth of its most current iterations. The picture is not quite so bleak. The field remains in flux, and many wonderful scholars have begun pushing it out further—both literally and figuratively. The Toynbee Foundation’s blog features interviews with many of global history’s most exciting and promising historians. Moving from America and Britain outward also carries the possibility of changing dominant nationalist paradigms of history elsewhere. It may be neither too early nor too late to imagine a global history of the discipline itself one day.

Think Piece

Marcel Schwob and Moody History

by guest contributor Dylan Kenny

Everyone in Paris knew Marcel Schwob (1867-1905). Journalist, critic, slang philologist, decadent symbolist fabulist, whose French Hamlet Sarah Bernhardt acted in 1899, whose 1904 lectures on François Villon were attended by Max Jacob and his friend Picasso, who was the dedicatee of Valéry’s meditative essay on Leonardo (1894) and Jarry’s absurd Ubu Roi (1896), who voyaged to Samoa to visit the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson (he got all the way to Samoa, but got sick before he could complete the pilgrimage): Schwob left his fingerprints all over the Parisian fin-de-siècle (P. Jourde, “L’Amour du singulier,” in Schwob, Oeuvres). His fiction ranges widely: from vies imaginaires of historical figures like Empedocles, Paolo Uccello, and Pocahontas, to eerie vignettes of war-torn 15th-century France, to Mimes imitating the Hellenistic poet Herodas, who had only just been published in 1891 (W.G. Arnott, “Herodas and the Kitchen Sink“). Schwob combines a philologist’s attention to detail with a fabulist’s elusive suggestion; the result is a thick, mysterious atmosphere blending history and fantasy.

Schwob’s scholarly work was tied essentially to Villon; the lectures he gave in 1904, a few months before his death, were the product of a lifetime of study. Villon is already central in his first book, the 1889 Étude sur l’argot français, written with his friend Georges Guieysse, with whom he had studied linguistics under Saussure and Michel Bréal, a key figure in the history of semantics (P. Champion, Marcel Schwob et son Temps, 43-49).  In the Étude, Schwob and Guieysse argue that argot, as exemplified by the slang of Villon and the coquillards, was originally a technical language used by oppressed classes and criminals to evade authority. It was, and still is, deliberately constructed according to rules, almost literary procedures, which the linguist can induce from the literary record and the structures of contemporary slang. As they explain with dizzying, fantastic scientific metaphors:

This language has been decomposed and recomposed like a chemical substance, but it is not inanimate like salts or metals. It is constrained to live under special laws, and the phenomena which we note are the result of this constraint. The animals of the great oceanic depths collected by the expeditions of the Travailleur and the Talisman are eyeless, but on their bodies they have developed pigmented and phosphorescent spots. Likewise argot, in the shallows where it moves, has lost certain linguistic faculties, and has developed others that take their place; deprived of the light of day, it has produced under the influence of the place that oppresses it a phosphorescence by which glow it lives and reproduces: synonymic derivation (Schwob and Guieysse, Étude sur l’argot français, 27-8).

With the breathlessness of explorers encountering alien life-forms, Schwob and Guieysse announce the possibility of breaking the old codes embedded in Villon’s poems. It was a project that would occupy Schwob for the rest of his life, and through which he would become renowned for his erudition in the Paris literary scene.

Schwob’s only real Anglophone attention has come from dedicated fans of decadent and avant-garde fiction. Wakefield Press published a translation of The Book of Monelle in 2012, the same year the boutique press Tartarus issued a volume of stories (already out of print); most recently, the journal Asymptote published the Herodian Mimes. Like the English medievalist M.R. James (1862-1936), whose formidable philological and historical work has been overshadowed by his ghost stories, Schwob has been remembered for his weird fiction, at the expense of his scholarly efforts.

But are the fictional and the historical so easily separated in the work of Schwob or James? James’s ghost stories imagine a secret, pagan darkness that occasionally rises up to terrify some mild-mannered antiquarian who unwittingly awakens it; they bear the stamp of a lifetime in archives and libraries. Schwob’s elliptical stories of the fifteenth century conjure the world that was the primary object of his scholarly labors. Across Europe, the scholarly efforts of a generation to interpret the classical, medieval, and Renaissance past are perfumed by fantasy. Think of vatic Aby Warburg (1866-1929), who made a note in 1929: “Of the influence of antiquity. This story is like a fairy tale [märchenhaft] to tell. A ghost story for people who are all grown up [Gespenstergeschichte für ganz Erwachsene]” (G. Didi-Huberman, L’Image survivante: histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg, 10). When did historical scholarship develop this pulpy atmosphere? How pervasive was it? Was it serious? Mere ornament? What was the range of its meanings? Only the most coarse-grained view recognizes a common mood between Schwob, James, and Warburg; each of them had very different concepts of history and the work of the historian. How could we tell the story of a historiographical mood? What is the intellectual history of history’s creepiness?

The earliest association of history and terror that I know of is in Book XI of the Odyssey. Odysseus, reciting his story to the Phaeacians, tells of his journey to Hades, where he met the shades of the dead. They emerged, he says, in reverse order of death: first came his companions from Troy, whom he engaged in conversation. Then Hercules, wearing a terrifying belt engraved with horrendous images, rose up and accosted him. Odysseus, though he would have liked to see even older heroes, high-tailed it out of Hades before some yet-older, unmanageable terror emerged, some monster Gorgon from the most archaic past.
The story makes for one of the strangest passages in Homer. I think it must have grabbed the attention of Warburg, who saw archaic trauma at the foundation of the history of culture. Schwob, who cites Book XI in the last of his Mimes, was certainly impressed by its lurid detail. But I wonder if Schwob wasn’t also thinking of this story’s literary character, and the crafty Odysseus weaving his tales for an enthralled audience.

Dylan Kenny is an MPhil student in early modern history at Cambridge. His current research focuses on the place of Herodotus in the work of the sixteenth-century printer and scholar Henri II Estienne.

Think Piece

Mobility in Context and the Global Intellectual

by Maryam Patton

If ideas are the most migratory things in the world, as Arthur O. Lovejoy suggested in 1940, then why have intellectual historians proven less eager to adopt the precepts of global history in comparison to their colleagues in other disciplines? In a recent essay, David Armitage posits that it has something to do with intellectual history’s origins as a discipline inherently international in scope. For instance, early modern debates in the history of ideas often held that ideas were independent of their origin. The Warburg Institute was established in the 1940s with a view towards history that emphasized studying the ways in which texts (among other things) travelled across linguistic and cultural borders. And figures like the Austrian O. Neugebauer worked tirelessly to show that Hellenistic science, often viewed as a uniquely Greek development, also grew out of a Near Eastern tradition. As richly contextualizing and important as these kinds of studies were, they were usually diachronic studies highlighting the diversity of our intellectual heritage over lengthy periods of time.

By contrast, when historians today refer to the global turn, the implication is less a concern with charting change through time, than with change in time but through space. This is true even within particular flavors of global history, be it transnational, comparative or international. Naturally there is a rich debate over what these categories constitute. Armitage prefers international turn as the umbrella category. I prefer global since international, by its very name, presumes the existence of national entities, and calls to mind the whole separate discipline of diplomatic history. So as flattering as it may be to suggest that intellectual historians were doing it all along, in reality the considerable differences between the earlier diachronic and modern synchronic approaches warrant another explanation for modern intellectual history’s lukewarm response towards the global.

Another possibility is the view that intellectual history is more immaterial than other sub-disciplines. As a result, this makes it more difficult to track the transmission and exchange of ideas than it is to track to the movement of goods and peoples. But this assumption ignores the advancements made by the history of books and their readers, and the social dimensions associated with the history of printing like commercial utility. Furthermore, the history of science might be considered only slightly more material than the history of ideas, particularly in the early modern period, and yet it has already produced a variety of responses to the global question. The current dominant method within global history of science is the metaphor of circulation.

 Circulation seeks to correct earlier Eurocentric perspectives, which largely asserted that modern science emerged ex nihilo in the West and spread outward from center to periphery. It promotes a geography of knowledge suggesting modern science developed along bidirectional paths of transmission. Furthermore, this science was not just passively adopted in the ‘periphery’ as if it were a tabula rasa, but underwent active transformations via local knowledge and practice. Much of the recent historiography in Atlantic and imperial history, which shares many concerns with global history, argues along a similar trajectory. Circulation goes beyond a simple geographic model of mobility and strives to show that knowledge was fashioned by its circulating. In a sense, circulation was not just the relocation of knowledge that had been produced previously in a separate context; the very act of circulating was what ultimately fashioned the universal science we recognize today.

This emphasis on mobility is a common feature of global history more generally beyond the history of science. It illustrates my comments above concerning the tendency for global history to hold time relatively still while examining the density of movement (or lack thereof) within various geographic zones. But as Armitage rightly points out, spatial metaphors like circulation

do not indicate any substantive engagement with questions of space and place. They are instead shorthand indications that ideas lack material determinants and that they need to be placed into contexts construed almost entirely as temporal and linguistic, not physical or spatial. (Armitage, “The International Turn in Intellectual History,” 240)

It is this struggle over how to account for context that poses the greatest challenge for intellectual historians wishing to engage with the global turn. While global history strives to undo the notion that national boundaries dictate the limits of spatial contexts, it hasn’t proposed a suitable alternative. And if ultimately what is meant by ‘global context’ amounts to concentric circles of geographic space that grow until they encompass the whole of earth, then perhaps it isn’t surprising that intellectual historians have simply carried on as usual, never hindered in the first place by the emphasis on national boundaries. I am nevertheless optimistic that the issues surrounding context will find a solution in the near future, but I think it will come about not by questioning what global history can offer intellectual history, rather what intellectual history can offer global history.

As immaterial as an idea may seem, it always begins in the mind of an individual embedded in a particular place. (Anthony Grafton, “The Power of Ideas” in A Concise Companion to History, 358.) Yet as an intellectual historian-in-training, I find we often strive to downplay the centrality of these individuals in our narratives. It strikes me that one way to push the envelope for defining the global context would be to historicize the very idea of such a context in the minds of global individuals. These could be the learned travellers from my own research, such as Edward Pococke or John Greaves, cultural intermediaries like ambassadors, go-betweens like the Ottoman translators known as dragomans, or any number of figures who moved between cultural contexts, picking up bits and pieces here and there and carrying those contextual understandings with them. Like Georg Simmel’s phenomenon of The Stranger, these individuals signify someone who “is fixed within a particular spatial group…but his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.” Intellectual history is well equipped to study such strangers in order to uncover how self-conscious they were of their global identity, and to uncover those qualities which moved with them on their journeys. Those qualities would have emerged from the subtle impressions made on them as they moved through contexts, like the relief on a page out of a letterpress. The impressions could then reveal the contexts that created them.


Further reading: This was a necessarily brief reflection on global history’s potential role for intellectual historians. For more comprehensive studies, see in particular the Journal of the History of Idea’s volume on “Intellectual History in a Global Age,” Carol Gluck and Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing’s edited volume Words in Motion, and David Bell’s article criticizing the overuse of network theory.

Maryam Patton is a first-year MPhil student at the University of Oxford studying the early modern intellectual history of Europe and the Near East. She is particularly interested in the ways books and ideas moved between cultures, especially those concerning the history of astronomy, and her dissertation focuses on 17th-century British Orientalism. 

Think Piece

The Sounds of History

by John Raimo

So far as writing history goes, the British historian G.M. Young wrote, “The secret is to treat every document as the record of a conversation, and go on reading till you hear the people speaking.” This characterization remains striking, and it cuts to a certain number of timeless historiographical issues. A first one seems clear enough. Many of the great texts which intellectual historians look to easily enough afford monolithic interpretations, that is, as worlds unto themselves. (Lest the point seem simple enough vis-à-vis intertextuality, &c., one can look to any number of recent studies delightfully lost in the tangle of Hobbes.) Recapturing the dialogues and polemical dimensions of such texts poses a different challenge—not least in reading demolished, perhaps boring, and justly or not forgotten arguments and thinkers. Few are likely to end up on most syllabi. Then archival work also enters the equation. What kinds of scaffolding fell away in correspondences, marginalia, pamphlets, and newspapers? Moreover, what sort of actual spoken conversations leave only the slightest traces in written documents or other forms of evidence?

At this point ‘hearing the people speaking’ begins to suggest a deeper level of comprehension. It cuts toward style. Appreciating this in full entails something more than teasing out allusions, references, and even the connotations of central terms. It means understanding something like the context, backgrounds, and circumstances of syntax, diction (not least regionalisms), rhythm, color, and the pitch of an author’s language. Style naturally enough implies an audience, or at least betrays expectations and anxieties floating behind the text. The hermeneutic demands were already daunting enough: now literary sensitivity, a lifetime’s worth of broad reading, and something like native fluency in a language all become necessary. So far as methodology goes, there’s nothing left but to “go on reading” until those voices begin to sound—and hopefully not the crazier ones.

Historians of the intellectual history of the twentieth century may have an easier job of this. Namely, television and radio all furnish not only a different source of evidence, but also evidence of a new order: the aural record as such. Here rich resources await anyone with patience, YouTube, and access to interlibrary loan programs. Before, during, and after the Second World War, public intellectuals of all kinds began making conscious use of all the media at their disposal. One fascinating earlier instance comes to mind in Thomas Mann’s BBC broadcasts to Nazi Germany (which were indeed later published), though Mann’s first broadcast actually happened more than ten years earlier. And so it’s little wonder that, another ten years after the war, the great intellectual Hans Magnus Enzensberger would begin his career in part as a Hörfunkredakteur of “Radio Essays” under Alfred Andersch at the Süddeutscher Rundfunk.

The floodgates open in postwar Europe with everything from the BBC’s renowned Reith Lectures to Günter Gaus’s famous interviews, André Malraux’s grand public speeches, and the Nobel Prize banquet speeches. This was hardly unusual: media groups such as the ARD in West Germany, Radio France (with quite an interesting chronology), and the BBC among others all made eager use of novelists, philosophers, and other public figures to both reach and create new audiences beyond print. Some scholars such as Tamara Chaplin have written sensitively about this as a phenomenon in its own right, and indeed it continues in many places until the present day.

Yet there is also a dearth of twentieth century studies connecting audio, visual, and print sources in terms of intellectual history. Here I mean how form modified the content, often through successive rounds or versions. This includes lectures recorded in the classroom, round-tables, interviews, and talks given before academic audiences, say Raymond Aron at the Sorbonne in 1963 for instance. These figures tailored and tried out formulations before committing themselves to print (and then often revising the texts afterwards). One particularly interesting case here might be Theodor Adorno, a wonderful public speaker who tested his 1964 attack on Heidegger in lecture form (an uncut form can be purchased here). The text is slightly different and, perhaps more importantly, his listener can’t escape the heavy irony laden in Adorno’s voice. And he’s quite funny to boot (an idea which likely has yet to take in studies of the great thinker). Or similarly, one hears not only Berlin but a Berlin of another time and place in Gershom Scholem’s autobiographical recollections.

Does listening to old recordings automatically make historians better readers? Of course not. Nor do historians hear things the way they were once heard, with all the hermeneutic baggage that texts pose alongside additional ones drawing on what can only be called our aural formations (i.e. our native languages, academic experiences, tempo of daily speech, and so on). Nothing threatens to pull written texts down from their pedestal unless we specifically turn to film, music, art, and other materials. On the other hand, nothing precludes a movement between sound and word for historians so fortunate as to have this great legacy at hand. So it may still make for better readers among intellectual historians and—just as importantly—it also humanizes the endeavor. One hears the tired, young, provincial, sick, laughing, charismatic, high-pitched (e.g. Otto von Bismarck) and even occasionally boring people behind, in, and sometimes escaping beyond the text.

*There are several resources to recommend here. Ubuweb, the Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA) the Bibliothèque national de France (where I recently stumbled onto a recording of Émile Durkheim), the British Library, and the ubiquitous YouTube are wonderful Internet resources. Many archives also have scattered holdings, albeit ones which must be visited in person. There are also lines of recordings, however, which can purchased from INA, the British Library, Hörverlag, Gallimard, Fremeaux et Associés, and Quartino among other publishers, including more boutique companies like Brigade Commerz and Supposé. A few others spring to my mind, but I’d like to hear comments and suggestions from other audiophiles among the intellectual history community.

Think Piece

Would you like your history slanderous or boring?

by guest contributor Caio Ferreira

“A journal, sir, is no more a history than materials are a house.” Voltaire wrote this to the historian Jöran Andersson Nordberg, chaplain of king Charles XII of Sweden, in 1744. They respond assertively to a series of criticisms Voltaire received from Nordberg two years prior concerning his Histoire de Charles XII. In his own account of Charles XII’s reign (Konung Carl XII:s historia, 1740), Nordberg dedicated an entire introduction to correcting the liberties that previous historians had taken with the source material. One of his main targets had been none other than Voltaire himself.

Charles XII NordbergWhat remains interesting is the debate that sprang from Nordberg’s criticism. If, on the one hand, the chapelain admitted that Voltaire’s “beauty and vivacity of style” was commendable, his final verdict was nevertheless severe: Histoire de Charles XII, with its alarming lack of reliable sources, disseminated a number of imprecisions about the reign of the Swedish king. Quoting from La Voltairomanie (a critical essay on Voltaire published by Pierre-François Guyot Desfontaines in 1740), Nordberg suggested that Voltaire’s book was not historiography at all but a “historical novel.” As such, it was unworthy of being read.

Voltaire concedes to all those criticisms. In his response, he does not try to defend his sources or his research methods. Instead, Voltaire shifted the conversation entirely. To him, the sloppiness of the work was excusable to the degree that it affected “insignificant truths” (e.g. the location of the chapel in Charles XII’s castle and the precise minutia of his regalia). What Voltaire “got wrong” were mere trivialities bearing little or no importance to his larger narrative. As a historian, Voltaire was surely committed to telling the truth, but the truth he aimed for proved more specific in his mind. Such a history was not meant to be all-encompassing, but rather to preserve what as “worthy of being transmitted to posterity.”

Histoire Charles XII Voltaire

At the same time, Voltaire also had a distinct yet equally important goal: presenting an engaging narrative. It was important to produce a history in the mold of Tacitus and Livy, one that avoided “particularizing petty facts” and “preparing colors” in order to focus on “painting the picture.” To illustrate this, the philosophe punctuated his letter with an infamous quip: “A historian has many duties. Allow me to remind you here of two which are of some importance. The first is not to slander; the second is not to bore. I can excuse you for neglecting the first because few will read your work; I cannot, however, forgive you for neglecting the second, for I was forced to read you.” To this end, Voltaire accepted a certain “sloppiness.”

Reading this exchange now gives rise to conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it’s not difficult to side with Voltaire—not only because of his piercing rhetoric, but because no scholar wants to go unread. On the other hand, Nordberg’s complaints sound eerily contemporary. Despite his overzealousness, Nordberg represents current academic concerns and scholarly paradigms. His professional ethos seems alive and well: the first duty of the historian is to be as precise as possible, with entertainment being a welcome but unnecessary addition.

What remains curious is that history’s potential to delight and entertain long appeared to be its defining characteristic. The origins of this perspective presumably travel as far back to Cicero. He established that the historian was tasked not only with revealing the truth, but with revealing it in its entirety. However, Cicero also assumed that the intrinsic connection between history and oratory went much deeper than the mere recording of facts in chronological order. A good way to visualize this is to consider Cicero’s differentiation between annals and historiography: the former remains a simple registry, while the latter transforms into a registry “given distinction” through rules of speech. If truth was a concern, so was the ability of the historian to elevate certain facts above others, to give them emotional weight through the use of linguistic and narrative techniques.

The very notion of exemplarity (or even the larger idea of a Historia magistra vitae) carries within it the germ of this concern. Even before Cicero, Roman rhetoricians already supposed that the vividness of examples had a positive impact on moral education. Such authors as Polybius seemed to understand that virtue might be better taught through narrative presentation than through demanding metaphysical inquiry. The life of Alexander the Great demonstrated “courage” better than any conceptual investigation. Early modern humanism certainly proved keen on this idea. Even Sir Philip Sidney—who otherwise thought of historiography as an inferior pedagogical tool compared to poetry—necessarily contended that its narrative aspect had a profound value. In all of these cases, an implicit agreement emerges so far as a valid historical account proves one that, while truthful, is also capable of embracing its ludic aspects. Pleasure was a constitutive and not simply a contingent part of historiography.

It seems, however, that when we reach Voltaire the tension between truth and pleasure has grown to be almost irreconcilable: the epistemological status of historical writing can no longer support the two principles. As early as 1566, Jean Bodin wrote that “I have made up my mind that it is practically an impossibility for the man who writes to give pleasure, to impart the truth of the matter also.” As such, we cannot say that Nordberg perspective was idiosyncratic, nor can we claim it did not count many adherents. Many nineteenth-century historians from Ranke to Langlois and Seignobos reaffirmed the commitment to truth as the only real interest of history.

Ultimately, I believe this debate is worth recuperating. It not only poses interesting questions—in particular, what were the epistemological shifts that facilitated this change?—but also serves as a locus point for history and literature considered together. Here, the questions of how historians view themselves, of how they define their own practices, goals, and the necessary compromises will continue to engage us all.

Caio Ferreira is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of French and Romance Philology at Columbia University. He works on historiography and the intellectual history of early modern Europe.